posted: August 26, 2018
tl;dr: You need big $$$ to pursue a small claims court case in Illinois...
This will conclude my saga of trying to recover the loss in resale value that occurred when a reckless driver caused an accident which damaged by Jeep (see part one and part two).
My hope in dragging Sentry Insurance into small claims court was that, finally, Sentry would be placed under oath and be forced, under penalty of law, to stop lying and tell the truth. No longer would Sentry be able to claim that having an accident on my Jeep’s record did not reduce its resale value. No longer would Sentry be able to claim that the accident took place in a parking lot.
So what happened? The judge never placed Sentry Insurance under oath, and Sentry’s counsel invented even more lies.
I learned several important lessons in this process, my first time as a plaintiff in court:
You don’t have to show up in court on time
I got my daughter, the driver of the vehicle at the time of the accident, out of bed early in the morning during summer vacation (no small feat given that she is an American teenager) in order to get to court early. “Early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable,” I had thought. I was adhering to the court’s admonishments in the rules about how, if one party does not show up on time, judgment may be awarded to the other party. I brought my daughter along thinking she could provide testimony as to the location of the accident and other details. I wanted this case to be an example to her of the esteemed American justice system in action, holding guilty parties accountable for their lies and misdeeds.
I was incredibly naive. My daughter and I were in front of the judge at the appointed time, and Sentry’s attorney was a no-show. The judge told us to take a seat and processed a couple of other cases. Looking at the electronic docket display, I noticed that a majority of the cases were people suing insurance companies. I thought it a bit strange that there were no other non-attorney citizens appearing before the judge, even though this was small claims court, and the court instructions explicitly said that legal representation was not required. During this whole time I was thinking that I’d won the case by default. Eventually Sentry’s attorney sauntered into the courtroom, with no explanation for the tardiness proffered nor demanded.
It turned out that the judge had no intent of hearing the case or rendering a verdict that day. Sentry had filed a motion to dismiss the case, which claimed (ludricrously) that Sentry “is not involved in the accident". This was merely a hearing for the judge to provide me the opportunity to file a response to Sentry’s motion to dismiss, which would produce another hearing. The morning was a complete waste of my daughter’s time, and it becoming clear to me that neither the judge nor the defendant's attorney wanted this case to reach a rapid conclusion. They were both getting paid for their time; I was not.
You don’t have to tell the truth in court
I had been taught, many years ago, that the foundation of the American justice system rested upon the obligation of all parties to tell the truth in a court of law. I guess I have not been paying enough attention to the news recently. If you’re guilty, as Sentry was of repeatedly lying to me and the State of Illinois, a perfectly viable strategy is to continue to lie. An even better strategy is to compound the lies and invent new allegations about the other party.
I was expecting a major legal battle with Sentry’s law firm, and Sentry’s attorneys did not disappoint. The Sentry attorneys assigned to respond to my complaint got their legal training at the John Marshall Law School. Most people outside Chicago have probably never heard of it, but John Marshall has a reputation of producing the brass knuckle street fighter-type of attorney, some of whom become successful ambulance chasers. Chicago has several top notch law schools, such as the University of Chicago and Northwestern, but John Marshall is not among them. Statistics cited by Wikipedia claim that “based on 2014 data submitted by law schools to the American Bar Association...48.9% of graduates obtained full-time, long term positions requiring bar admission (i.e., jobs as lawyers), ten months after graduation, ranking 149 out of 197 law schools”. John Marshall enjoys such incredible support from its wealthy alumni base that the State of Illinois, which is itself in financial straits, is bailing it out by making it part of the state university system.
Sentry’s attorneys did their job brilliantly. They came up with an argument that Sentry was not involved in the accident, even though they were the insurance company of record on the police accident report, and made it appear as though I had simply made a mistake by suing the wrong insurance company. They did everything they could to destroy my character in the judge’s eyes. They submitted as evidence tweets I had sent which expressed disparagement towards insurance companies (does anyone like insurance companies besides those who work for insurance companies?) and even tried to portray me as a threat to commit physical violence. If I ever commit a serious crime, I now know who I want defending me: graduates of the John Marshall Law School.
It didn’t surprise me at all that Sentry’s attornies lied. What surprised me was that the judge allowed it. To be fair to the judge, he might just have been waiting until he could render a final verdict to punish Sentry.
The expense of small claims court can far exceed the potential settlement
Watching the way the judge ran the courtroom, and the endless parade of attorneys who appeared before him filing motion after motion, it was clear that I had again been completely naive. I had expected small claims court to be a place where a judge would quickly hear minor disputes and render a verdict. It was anything but. It seemed as though the judge, through his formality and his attention to legal details and precedent, was auditioning for the next vacancy of the U.S. Supreme Court. I made it through two court appearances and was scheduled for a third, and produced over 70 pages of documentation; yet I was probably still three or more court appearances away from having the actual facts of the cases considered by the judge and a verdict rendered. Given that I am now moving out of Illinois, I dropped the case.
To be fair to the judge, the law was actually on Sentry’s side. It turns out that, in the state of Illinois and most other states, a person cannot sue an insurance company in a liability case: you are supposed to sue the at fault party. In my case Sentry had approached me, which I felt created a verbal contract to settle my claim directly, but the judge would have had to go against precedent to accept that argument. Sentry knew this: it is why they approached me directly to settle my claim within 48 hours of the accident. They could (and did) shortchange me, and I could not sue them.
My final advice to accident victims who get approached by a liability insurance company to settle a claim directly: do not do so. Instead, hire a graduate of the John Marshall Law School to sue the party at fault.